BCP presents serious drama

By John Lyle Belden

Wendy remembers a video rental place (remember those?) where the clerks kept putting the 1987 Streisand movie “Nuts” on the comedy shelves, and it definitely did not belong there.

While the courtroom drama, the original stage version of which is at Buck Creek Players, does have its moments of legal wit, and a defendant who deflects with “inappropriate humor,” this play is dead serious.

In a courtroom on the grounds of New York’s Bellevue Hospital in the winter of 1979, a hearing will determine if Claudia (played by Jenni White) is competent to stand trial for manslaughter. Her mother and stepfather (Miki Mathioudakis and Tim Latimer) are naturally concerned. Judge Murdoch (Ed Mobley) and prosecutor MacMillan (Dave Hoffman) are prepared for a fairly routine proceeding, with Dr. Roesnthal (Graham Brinklow) declaring the defendant unfit, and the state signing off on it. Officer Harry (Tracy Jones) is just biding time until the next smoke break.

But Claudia doesn’t believe she is “nuts,” and works with attorney Lewinsky (Michael Swinford), whose apparently disorganized manner makes him look out of his depth – until he starts asking some surprisingly probing questions.

White masterfully portrays the easily underestimated Claudia, as she plays into her opponents’ assumptions until the moment she can turn the tables. Still, she’s hardly in control. Her parents represent past pain that she never reconciled, and her stepfather being put on the stand rips those wounds back open.

Mathioudakis and Latimer tackle difficult roles professionally, she a chameleon whose colors shift from cool to hot as events unfold, he the type of person you at first mistrust because he’s rich, but then find he’s far worse than anyone suspects.

Hoffman plays it competent but stiff, while Swinford as the legal wild card is like a lithe, crafty fox. Mobley is great at crusty characters, and is in charge here. Brinklow is a study in confident arrogance. Jones is subtly reassuring, an unlikely friend. Completing the cast, Adrienne Reiswerg ably plays the court recorder, who, at the play’s close, gets in the last word.

The portrayal of mental healthcare in the late 70s seems so long ago, it’s easy to forget that only a few decades have passed, and much of the stigma – of mental illness, of sex work, and of women’s issues – still remains. And it’s further shocking how the nature of the childhood abuse Claudia suffered becomes almost a footnote in this case. There would be more attention paid today, but, honestly, how much?

Yes, “Nuts” is not a comedy, but it’s kinda funny how its issues are still resonant today.

One weekend of performances remain, Friday through Sunday, Oct. 6-8, at Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeast Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74). Call 317-862-2270 or visit www.BuckCreekPlayers.com.

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BCP’s ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ here to steal your heart

By John Lyle Belden

Is it a “spoiler” if you already know the ending?

The musical “Bonnie & Clyde” – through June 25 at Buck Creek Players – opens with our titular characters dying from a rain of bullets on a Louisiana road in 1934. But this historical fact is not what is important in this show by Ivan Menchell and Don Black with music by Frank Wildhorn of “Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical.” We aren’t given the gore of their story; this play is an exploration of what made a young man and woman from Texas into the Romeo and Juliet of Depression-era crime.

Bonnie and Clyde musical publicity shot
Joseph Massingale and Annie Miller as Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker in the musical “Bonnie & Clyde” presented by Buck Creek Players.

After the opening tableau, we turn back to see a boy – young Clyde Barrow (Jordan Anness), a child of the West Dallas slums, become a career criminal at 12 and aspire to outshine the Roaring Twenties’ outlaws. We also meet a girl – young Bonnie Parker (Lauren Sciaudone), whose family’s hard times landed her and her mother in West Dallas, but she still plans to make it big one day in Hollywood.

These kids grow to be adults (Joseph Massingale and Annie Miller) in a world of dust and hard times – at one point our couple robs a bankrupt bank. Clyde is the only one who takes Bonnie’s dreams seriously, so they fall in love so deeply that even his stays in jail can’t keep them apart. As she joins him on his “jobs,” Bonnie gives up on the movies and aspires to fame in the pages of true-crime magazines and having her poetry published.

Meanwhile, Clyde’s brother, Buck (Levi Hoffman), gets in on the action with even his upstanding wife Blanche (Miranda Nehrig) drawn into the Barrow Gang. On the other side of the law, Deputy Ted Hinton (Jonathan Krouse), who had long been in love with Bonnie, joins in pursuit of the outlaws with Sheriff Smoot Schmid (James Hildreth) under the lead of Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Kurt F. Clemenz).

The story presented neither demonizes nor glorifies the people involved, or their actions, but puts them in the context of their times and the contradictions that surrounded them – including the murderous thieves staying true to their families, going to meet them at the risk of their own safety. Some license is taken with the story, but it does stay surprisingly true to recorded events. A small video screen above the stage shows photos from the era, including mugshots, to underscore the truth of these scenes.

While rakishly handsome Massingale and charming beauty Miller excellently hold the center of the show in both voice and acting (and some resemblance to their real-life counterparts), supporting roles also shine. Nehrig’s Blanche telling Buck “You’re Going Back to Jail” is a wonderful highlight and an excellent example of the musical’s use of humor to balance the drama. Krouse gives us a heartbreaking glimpse of what Bonnie could have had in steadfast Ted. Molly Kraus is also noteworthy as Bonnie’s mother, Emma.

Director D. Scott Robinson’s passion for the show (which had a brief run on Broadway) is evident in the finished product.

Being a volunteer non-profit, BCP could “afford” to have the large enthusiastic cast and crew necessary to this musical, all “pros” in their own way. The effective yet elegantly simple stage set includes an exceptional replica of the front end of Clyde’s V-8 Ford, hand-built by set designer Aaron B. Bailey.

But the car’s fenders are clean and free of bullet holes. This is the story before that moment; a story of love and hard decisions in difficult times, the slow and steady progress of justice, and of running from the inevitable when the best you can hope for is to reach the end of the road together.

Find Buck Creek Playhouse at 11150 Southeast Ave. (Acton Road Exit off I-74); call 317-862-2270 or see www.buckcreekplayers.com.

Korean War comedy at BCP

By John Lyle Belden

Though we might be familiar with the 1970s film or long-running television series, the stage play of “M*A*S*H” – and particularly the Buck Creek Players production, on stage through April 9 – stands apart.

Written by Tim Kelly and based on the original Richard Hooker novel, this live version features the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in Korea during the 1950-53 war, as well as some familiar characters, but don’t expect a reprise of the TV show.

Like the book and movie, the plot is mainly a series of scenes. The main story arcs concern the arrival and service of irreverent but excellent combat surgeons Captains Hawkeye Pierce (Ryan Powell) and Duke Forrest (Kurt F. Clemenz), as well as the fate of Korean youth Ho-Jon (Achiradeth “Boss” Teerasataporn). We also meet neurotic commander Col. Blake (Gregory Brinkers); incompetent stick-in-the-mud Maj. Burns (Ben Jones); Hawkeye and Duke’s fellow mischief-makers Captains Trapper John (Gergory Dunn), Ugly Black (Dave Hoffman) and suicidal dentist Walt Waldowski (George Chimples); new chief nurse Maj. “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Sue Kuehnhold) and the strong but easy-going nursing staff Lieutenants Fury (Abby White), Kimble (Michelle Papandria) and Phillips (Jennifer Berk); the cook always cooking up get-rich schemes, Sgt. Devine (Jamison Allen); and the supernaturally perceptive Cpl. Radar O’Reilly (Jim Banta).

Among the more fun scenes are those that involve getting Burns out of the unit for good; snapping Walt from a deep funk by staging his “death” and resurrection; and the arrival of three stranded female USO performers (Miranda Garrett, Rachel Riley and Kristen Baker).

Teerasataporn, a Thai exchange student, makes a great stage debut as Ho-Jon, the houseboy (and Hawkeye’s hijinks co-conspirator) in the officers’ tent known as “The Swamp.” After being drafted away by the South Korean Army, he is by dubious luck returned to the 4077th as a casualty. Then M.A.S.H. personnel, led by Hawkeye, raise money to help send Ho-Jon to the States to attend medical school.

Other performances are sharp as well; Powell relishes his role as mischief-maker.

Some aspects of the show are problematic: Given both the era portrayed and when the stories were written (and possibly few Asians available for audition) the native women are little more than giggling extras, uncomfortably close to stereotype. Also, it was an odd choice to have Jones also play neurosurgeon and football star “Spearchucker” Jones, typically cast (questionable name and all) with an African-American.

Nonetheless, this ambitious production nicely captures the spirit of the filmed versions, while giving us a fresh angle on the “Four Oh Double-Natural.” Find BCP at 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74); call 317-862-2270 or visit buckcreekplayers.com.

John L. Belden is also Associate Editor and A&E editor of The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Down with BHC? Hey, you know me!

By John Lyle Belden

Do you have a favorite BHC?

That stands for Beloved Holiday Classic book, movie or television special; nearly everyone has at least one they love to revisit this time of year. And nearly all get at least a shout-out in “Every Christmas Story Ever Told …and then some!” on stage through Dec. 18 at Buck Creek Players.

Steven Linville apparently loves Charles Dickens’ “Christmas Carol,” and is eager to get its performance under way – “Marley was dead…” etc. – but Jessica Bartley and Stacia Ann Hulen revolt, and insist that other holiday classics get their due. Thus the trio address the plots of various BHCs, from Charlie Brown to Dr. Seuss to Dylan Thomas, and throw in facts about Christmas celebrations in other countries around the world.

In Act Two, Linville finally gets to lead a production of Christmas Carol – but wait! One of the more popular BHCs was almost forgotten, and its story ends up in a wild mash-up with Scrooge’s.

Bartley, Hulen and Linville charm and bring plenty of festive comic energy to the show, but they can’t do it alone – the audience and select members occasionally get called on to help things along. If this doesn’t bother you, you’re bound to have a fun time at this holiday treat.

And I must praise set designer Aaron B. Bailey for the wonderful stage set, with our players standing among a library of giant holiday-themed books.

Director D. Scott Robinson said he wasn’t sure he wanted to helm a Christmas show, until he saw this script. He especially enjoyed mixing the music for the show’s “Nutcracker” interlude, which sounds a little different from how Tchaikovsky wrote it.

P.S. Bring cash for the annual cookie sale fundraiser.

Find the Buck Creek Playhouse at 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74); call 317-862-2270 or visit www.buckcreekplayers.com.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor for The Eagle (formerly The Word), the Indianapolis-based LGBTQ news source, where he also places his reviews. He’d like to think of “Die Hard” and “Trading Places” as BHCs, and has a great fondness for “Year Without a Santa Claus.”

Doesn’t seem so “Dirty” these days, does it?

NOTE: As the Word/Eagle is in flux with the renaming and corresponding change in official website, John is putting his reviews here — for now.

By John Lyle Belden

It seems few people give a thought towards Mae West these days. After all, she was a star of the black-and-white film era, a Vaudeville player. She was curvy when ample curves were cool, but sexy when the mere hint of sex – let alone making “Sex” the name of your play – could get you in trouble.

But she deserves a closer look, not only for how she confronted those troubles and withstood them, but for how she was an advocate not only for sexual freedom but for LGBT rights.

This life is explored in the play “Dirty Blonde,” which has one more weekend (today through Sunday) at Buck Creek Players just southeast of Indy.

We meet not only West (played by Sonja Distefano) and the men in her life (portrayed by Jay Hemphill and Michael Patrick Smiley), but also Jo and Charlie (Distefano and Hemphill), two West fans who meet in the years following West’s 1980 death at her tomb. Charlie had actually met the siren in her later years, an encounter that deeply affected him.

We see the progression of West’s career: from Vaudeville struggles; to controversy with Broadway plays “Sex,” its follow-up “The Drag” – centered on homosexuality – and her hit “Diamond Lil;” to success in film; and finally her stubbornness in insisting on staying in the spotlight and doing things her way to the very end. The scenes are interspersed with the growing relationship of Jo and Charlie, as the line between wanting to know Mae and wanting to be her blurs.

Distefano has the voice and gestures down, but struggles with the charisma of her larger-than-life role; she is far more appealing as Jo. Hemphill and Smiley do great work, but the pacing and overall feel of the show gave a sense that something was lacking. Still, it is a good effort and an enlightening look at an American icon.

Find the Buck Creek Playhouse at 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74). Get info and tickets at 317-862-2270 or www.buckcreekplayers.com.

John L. Belden is Associate Editor at The Eagle (formerly The Word), the central-Indiana based Midwest LGBTQ news source.

Review: Complex killer musical at BCP

By John Lyle Belden

For about a year now, it has been the unofficial Year of Sondheim around central Indiana stages. And now it appears to be Buck Creek Players’ turn, with its production of the musical, “Assassins.”

This play brings together in a dark-humored fantasia various men and women who killed – or tried to kill – the President of the United States. The genius of this piece by Sondheim and James Weidman is that it compellingly presents these individuals’ point of view without glorifying their acts.

The Proprietor (Steven R. Linville) in this room outside of time and space is offering guns to the various frustrated characters seeking – something. Perhaps it’s personal relief; perhaps it’s attention; perhaps it’s to change the world. The solution? Shoot the President.

The characters represent people who actually existed (a couple are even still alive), who you may or may not have heard of, but they all look up to the one we all know: Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth (Mark Meyer). Charles Guiteau (David Wood) would be shocked that we don’t know his name as readily, as he expected his shooting of President James Garfield (briefly played by chorus member W. Michael Davidson) to boost sales of his book and lead to him becoming President himself – rather than be hanged, which happened instead.

We also hear of the irrational motivations behind Leon Czolgosz (Jake McDuffee) shooting William McKinley, Guiseppe Zangara (Scott Fleshood) shooting at Franklin Roosevelt, John Hinckley Jr. (Trenton Baker) shooting Ronald Reagan, and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Stacia Ann Hulen) and Sara Jane Moore (Cathy Tolzmann) taking shots at Gerald Ford (played, complete with pratfall, by Bryan D. Padgett).

Most intriguing are the ramblings of Samuel Byck (Daniel Draves), taken from the actual tape recordings he made and sent to journalists, before attempting his plan to crash a passenger jet into the White House to kill Richard Nixon (his gun was used on others as he tried to take over the plane).

To let us know these assassins’ stories, we hear from a Balladeer (Luke McConnell), who eventually finds his own dark and infamous purpose.

These are not heroes; most are arguably insane, but it’s hard to say they are entirely bad people. These facts add depth to performances throughout the cast. Guiteau’s delusions make Wood’s portrayal one of the more entertaining. Hulen as a loopy-hippie Fromme and Tolzmann’s Kathy-Bates-esque turn as Moore provide much of the dark humor, especially in Moore’s total incompetence with a firearm. Mary Hayes Tuttle boldly portrays famed anarchist Emma Goldman, an influence on Czolgosz, who McDuffie infuses with desperation. Fleshood plays Zangara earnestly, an appropriate approach for someone whose pain was real but actions made little sense. And Draves is like an obscenity-spewing force of nature as Byck – the dirty Santa suit he wears to protest Nixon making him look even more unhinged. Baker’s Hinckley is a lost, confused boy with a gun.

Above all, Meyer exudes a charisma befitting Booth, a renowned actor before committing the one act his is known for, as he takes charge of this macabre exclusive club. Linville and McConnell ably represent American Culture and History, respectively, as tangible beings with genuine influence on the stories we see, making it feel inevitable when McConnell’s young man picks up the rifle.

(Note: This production doesn’t hold back on language. But then, the topic already makes this not a show for children.)

With sharp direction by D. Scott Robinson with Christine Schaefer, and interesting set design by Aaron B. Bailey, this is worth taking a shot at seeing down at the Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74), through June 12. Just kindly leave your firearms outside.

No actual Presidents were harmed in the making of this musical. Find info at www.buckcreekplayers.com or call 317-862-2270.

(Also published at The Word)

Review: Buck Creek’s ‘Garland’ charms

By John Lyle Belden

NOTE: Review also appears online with The Word (www.theygayword.com).

“Hi, I’m Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli’s mother.”

BCP Garland
Georgeanna Teipen as Judy Garland in “The Property Known as Garland” at Buck Creek Players through Sunday (BCP photo)

This is how the star, occupying the body of Georgeanna Teipen at Indy’s Buck Creek Playhouse, introduces herself to Ed (Steve Jerk) in the dressing room of Copenhagen’s Falconer Centre as they await what would be her final public concert, March 25, 1969. She then sends Ed on a fool’s errand so that she can be alone for the next hour to talk to us – across space, time and the fourth wall – about her life.

“The Property Known as Garland” was crafted by Billy Van Zandt from Garland’s actual words in interviews and dictations for a never-published memoir. Director D. Scott Robinson said a minimum of dramatic license was employed in the script. While he can’t say Judy’s stories were all true, because “she was a story-teller,” he said. “What you hear is what she actually said.” Robinson added that most aspects of her narrative, including her scandalous first pregnancy, are independently verifiable.

Robinson also said that while he was thrilled to get the rights to this show, he wouldn’t do it without Teipen as Garland. Fortunately, she was quick to say yes, he said. And indeed, from the short dark wig to the sassy attitude that sways from playful and wistful to maudlin and angry, she does – for 90 minutes, no intermission – become Judy Garland.

I must note that for those who are either eager for or cringing at the thought of her belting out full renditions of “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” or “Over the Rainbow,” it won’t happen. Teipen is spared inevitable comparisons to the legendary voice, as Judy saves it for her Danish audience.

Still, to hear her story, from little Frances Gumm and her sisters in vaudeville, through her time with MGM and Oz (including backlot Munchkin tales), up through her more recent triumphs (Oscar-nominated for “A Star is Born”) and trials (getting booed off the stage in Australia), is fascinating enough without song breaks. And in Teipen’s performance, we feel those highs and lows with her.

She touches on her appeal to LGBT audiences, including encounters with drag impersonators.

There is also a touch of irony, as she remarks on how each of her peers and rivals are “drunks” while waving her ever-refilling glass of Blue Nun dismissively. She has no problem with it, she says, except for having to switch from wine after being told, after liver surgery, that she could no longer consume hard liquor. And she laments how Marilyn Monroe was careless enough to overdose on pills, just months before she would die from a day of constant consumption of barbiturates.

There is just one weekend of performances left before the Garland glamour leaves us again. Find Buck Creek Players at 11150 Southeastern Ave., Acton Road exit off I-74; call 317-862-2270 or see www.buckcreekplayers.com.